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BLOG: Annemarie Lewis Thomas… The New Writing Challenge

Annemarie LewisThe MTA is the only UK college that has a policy to actively support new writing and indeed new writers. There are lots of colleges that pay a certain degree of lip service to this e.g. put on the odd new musical every so often – but when you think about the resources that the larger colleges have and the amount of shows that they produce in a year, it’s actually quite shocking how little of this material is new. Since opening in 2009 we have produced six ‘world premieres’ and are about to produce our seventh – not bad considering that we only produce two musicals a year! In addition to this we have done workshops/readings of about 30 new shows.

We commission a new musical every year for our 1st year group – predominantly because it’s hard to make a musical fit a year group – so commissioning is the perfect solution. I’m aware that LAMDA commission(s) (ed) annually too – ironic really when they’re known for their straight acting course, yet good on them! Imagine if all the colleges commissioned new works – how exciting that would be, and how wonderfully supportive that would be to all the writers out there, desperately trying to get their names established and their musical voices heard.

Now clearly I have a bias in this area. I founded the college and by trade I am a Musical Director and (hear those pennies drop) a composer/lyricist. So from personal experience I am painfully aware of how difficult it is to be presented with opportunities. I’ve been really lucky in my career having only ever written for commissions… but I do know that I’m extremely fortunate to be in that position.

It is so exciting for my students to get the opportunity to create rôles and to work with the writers. We have, since the beginning, been one of the many colleges that partner with Perfect Pitch, and as such our students are well versed in the trials and tribulations of workshopping and the development of new work, and find it extremely stimulating.

Surely this is a no brainer? It’s a win-win situation. Writers approach me all the time wanting the opportunity to ‘hear’ their material off the page. We can provide them with the space and the performers – they just have to provide the material and the creatives (or indeed we can provide that sometimes, depending on the project). Our students get to work with new people, and get to learn new material. The writers get to ‘hear’ their work and get feedback – both sides get a useful and productive learning experience.

If run in tandem with a robust historical musical theatre course too (which ours is) it actually adds to a sense of perspective of the art form. Why are colleges producing shows that were originally written as four-handers and shoe horning 20 odd students into them when they could commission someone to write a show for 20 people? Radical thoughts eh?

We started writing our own because we started with a year group of 11 girls and two boys. There are very few published shows that work for this split (even with a clever director). So it proved to be more valuable to write one for the group. At the time the year group were naturally very ‘belty’ so we were even able to write a legit sounding show to make it a vocally challenging show for them too – and one hell of a learning exercise. In fact by commissioning shows colleges don’t have to ‘make do’ with anything – no more shows with one lovely lead and 19 people (who have all paid the same money don’t forget) standing behind them looking gracious.

At the moment we can only afford to commission a book writer – which we have done every year in the form of the award winning Nick Stimson, I am still our cheapest option for the composition/lyrics. The shows though have all gone on to have some degree of life post MTA, which one day we hope will result in a percentage of royalties going back into The MTA Hardship Fund.

No doubt one of these blogs will end up being about my take on what’s happening with new musical theatre writing in the UK at the moment (I bet you can’t wait) but one thing’s for sure – if drama colleges that had much more money and resources than us actually invested in new writing we might not be seeing 80s revivals coming into the West End to ‘save commercial theatre’ right now. We just might have a buoyant new writing pool to call on with big cast shows ready to go for such emergencies.

To be absolutely clear I think that there’s a place for both, but the key here is both… not just one or the other. All of that said, it is wonderful to see other colleges now following our lead and producing more new UK writing -.just keep it up (and do a bit more of it, you can afford it)

Our latest commission, Just The Ticket runs 10th – 12th September, directed by Simon Greiff. Simon of course being yet another supporter of new musicals – in fact if the colleges commissioned new shows they should go to SimG to produce their original cast recordings ;-)

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About Paul Couch

Paul Couch
The features team is under the editorship of Paul Couch. This team is responsible for producing interviews, articles, competitions, etc. The Public Reviews was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.